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In the article Henry VIII: Henry the horrible (The Independent, 12 October 2003), Marcus Tanner wrote (emphasis added),

The man now remembered as the godfather of the Anglican church continued burning "heretics" to the end. England breathed a collective sigh of relief when this terrible bully breathed his last in Richmond Palace in 1547. Never again was England so near to being a state gripped by fear, a police state almost, as when Thomas Cromwell's spies were ferreting out "Papists" and "heretics", and hustling both to the stake. Never again was life at court quite so dangerous as it was under "bluff king Hal", when queens, bishops and statesmen as prominent as Sir Thomas More moved in single file up the royal hill of favour, and then down the other side to the block.

This made me wonder what the earliest depictions of a police state (or references to the existence of a police state) are on English-language fiction. (For the purpose of this question, only fiction counts, so letters, diaries, essays and pamphlets are excluded. It does not matter whether the police state was fictional or real.)

The Wikipedia article List of fictional police states lists several examples of police states in fiction. The oldest is We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, written 1920–1921, which is in Russian instead of English. The oldest example in English is Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. The French Wikipedia article about police states does not list any older examples. Neither do the corresponding German and Spanish Wikipedia articles. Possibly the Wikipedia editors view the concept a bit too narrowly when looking for literary examples.

What could be the earliest reference to or depiction of a police state in English literature? For the purpose of this question, it is not necessary that the entire work focuses on life in a police state, nor that the term "police" is used explicitly.

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  • How do you define "police state"?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 14, 2021 at 11:26
  • @Randal'Thor According to Wikipedia, "The earliest English use of the word police seems to have been the term Polles mentioned in the book The Second Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England published in 1642." However, for the purpose of this question, a government or king having spies everywhere and creating a state of fear is sufficient. (The state of fear by itself is insufficient.)
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 14, 2021 at 11:29
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    Why English? And do you allow translated works?
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 14, 2021 at 13:01
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    Thomas More's Utopia (1551) has aspects of a police state (for example internal passports), but that's in Latin, not English. (More was influenced by Plato's Republic, which is also rather totalitarian.) Dec 14, 2021 at 20:38
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    "Such as travel carry with them a passport from the Prince, which both certifies the licence that is granted for travelling, and limits the time of their return ... if any man goes out of the city to which he belongs without leave, and is found rambling without a passport, he is severely treated, he is punished as a fugitive, and sent home disgracefully; and, if he falls again into the like fault, is condemned to slavery." Jan 4, 2022 at 18:02

2 Answers 2

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The earliest reference I am aware of is Shakespeare's Macbeth, written in or around 1606.

Near the end of Act 3, scene 4, we find the following dialogue (emphasis mine),

MACBETH: How say'st thou, that Macduff denies his person
At our great bidding?

LADY MACBETH: Did you send to him, sir?

MACBETH: I hear it by the way; but I will send:
There's not a one of them but in his house
I keep a servant fee'd
.

This tells us that Macbeth knew Macduff would not come to his castle without a message from Macduff. Most importantly, Macbeth knew this because, as he tells us, he has spies in the house in each of his thanes. This is a characteristic of a police state.

In addition, Macbeth orders secret murders. In Act 5, scene 2, Angus mentions this explicitly:

Now does he [Macbeth] feel
His secret murders sticking on his hands

Note that there is no explicit reference to Banquo's murder here and that Macbeth is never accused of having ordered this murder. (The audience, by contrast, knows about it (see Act 3, scene 3 and Act 3, scene 4 and the sleepwalking scene, Act 5, scene 1.) Angus's words contribute to the impression that Macbeth is not only behind the murders of Duncan, Banquo and Macduff's family.

All this contributes to the impression to a police state avant la lettre.

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In The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) Revolutionary France is described as a "tyranny" and agents of the committee of Public Safety are shown as having near dictatorial powers.

Napoleonic France is shown as dictatorial and tyrannical in C. S. Forrester's "Hornblower" series, particularly in Flying Colors (1938).

In neither case is the term "police state" used, as best as I can recall, but as depicted the term arguably fits.

On September 29 1899 Kipling's verse "The old Issue" was published. Ir describes an imagined tyranny which might be called a police state in these lines:

Here is naught unproven—here is naught to learn.
It is written what shall fall if the King return.

He shall mark our goings, question whence we came,
Set his guards about us, as in Freedom’s name.

He shall take a tribute, toll of all our ware;
He shall change our gold for arms—arms we may not bear.

He shall break his judges if they cross his word;
He shall rule above the Law calling on the Lord.

He shall peep and mutter; and the night shall bring Watchers ’neath our window, lest we mock the King—

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  • I believe Rex Warner's novel 'The Aerodrome' (1941) certainly implies the existence of a police state. But I admit I read this so long ago that I dare not offer this as an answer.
    – Barnaby
    May 26, 2022 at 1:48
  • @Barnaby I have not read The Aerodrome. nor do I recall hearing of it before this. Why do you think it might be a better answer than the earlier instances in my answer. What about this novel made it seem more of a police state than those earlier ones? May 26, 2022 at 2:27
  • Certainly not a better answer, and not even an earlier instance of a police state, but I think it is a book that deserves to be remembered. I read The Aerodrome around the same time I read T.E. Lawrence's The Mint, and I suspect they have grown together in my mind, so I daren't say too much about it! But I remember it as showing—through the microcosm of a military airfield—a society rapidly evolving into a fascist state, and I think the necessary police component was at least implied.
    – Barnaby
    May 28, 2022 at 17:28

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